Monday, December 07, 2015

Pondering Ethics After a Tough News Week

Another mangled "Desert Sage" column. Both in print and online, the Sun News lopped off the last 60 words of the column, leaving it to end abruptly and with no conclusion. So here, for what it's worth, is the column as it is meant to appear.

I may give up. I've been struggling to write something of a quality that satisfies me and is also a fit for the local readership. I've also been struggling with mishaps like this, the column not appearing online, and so on. 

So here's the column.

Last week several stories led Desert Sage to ponder the difference between responsibility and guilt.

When you study ethics you learn about two kinds of responsibility. There is something called "role responsibility" that is often confused with "moral responsibility." They are different.  Imagine a first responder who says after a brave rescue: "I am not a hero, I was just doing my job." In that humble statement, she makes a distinction between fulfilling a role (as a rescuer) and getting moral credit for it. Credit and blame have to do with moral responsibility.

Whether or not you believe ethics has to do with a Creator, this is about culture. You own personal responsibility for your actions yet you are not alone. As Willard Gaylin put it: "Freedom demands responsibility; autonomy demands culpability."  You exist as an individual and as part of a society.

For instance, there is the disturbing story of Kenneth Jehle, the Albuquerque schoolteacher accused of harassing and inappropriately touching numerous girls at three different schools starting in 2002.  Despite multiple complaints by students, parents, co-workers, and even a police report filed by an officer of the Albuquerque Public Schools, Jehle's career  flourished until he was fired in 2014. His undoing only came after one family sued the district, Jehle himself, and two principals who allegedly covered for him. Last week, APS settled the lawsuit for  $750,000.

Jehle's individual guilt is one matter, but a deeper question concerns how the district failed in its role, which is to maintain a safe learning environment. How did this problem continue for so long without Jehle being held accountable? Does APS not track teachers with a history of complaints? Why did principal Sam Obenshain repeatedly dismiss complaints about this teacher, even bringing Jehle with him after he transferred to another school? Obenshain arguably put students in harm's way by this negligence, yet he is still the head of that school - still charged with the safety and welfare of children.

Unless there are visible and binding changes at APS, a key social obligation has been shirked despite the cash settlement.

We can be generous or stingy with our sense of communal responsibility. The men who shot up Paris on November 13 may have shouted "Allahu akbar," but they are not true representations of typical Muslims. Ordinary Muslims are not to blame for what they did. Nonetheless, Muslims around the world have spoken out to denounce terrorism as anti-Islamic even as assaults on anyone construed to be a Muslim have risen drastically. This is a generous (but also defensive) expansion of a shared "role responsibility."

Then came the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs on November 27. Clinics providing abortions have been targets of domestic terrorism for decades. Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion groups have often encouraged tactics of harassment and fear, while distancing themselves from any responsibility for actual violence. Politicians play this game, too.

Early indications suggest Robert Dear, the alleged shooter, may be deranged and not representative of a movement. Nonetheless, a pro-life activist in Las Cruces, Mark Cavaliere, generously expanded his "role responsibility" as a leader of Las Cruces for Life.  He drew an ethical line where Operation Rescue and certain presidential candidates will not.

In a statement published on, Cavaliere wrote: "No person who carries out, intends to carry out, or justifies in theory such acts of violence has any part in our movement... We furthermore pledge to redouble our efforts to advance a climate of nonjudgmental understanding and peaceful non-violence."

There are some national figures who could benefit from his example.

1 comment:

Peg said...

Brilliant - you are one of my faves on Twitter.